Colo. DUI drivers could face felony charges under proposed law

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State lawmakers are considering a bill that would make it a felony to repeatedly drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Under current Colorado law, no matter how many times someone has been arrested for driving under the influence, the charge is a misdemeanor.

More than 24,000 people were arrested in Colorado last year for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates that nationwide, one quarter of drivers arrested or convicted of driving while intoxicated were repeat offenders.

“What we have isn’t working and we need to be more aggressive in addressing drunk drivers. We’re finally realizing that we need to do more,” says Representative Beth McCann (D-Denver), one of the bill’s sponsors.

Colorado is one of only five states that doesn’t have a felony DUI law.

Under the proposed legislation, impaired drivers would face felony charges on their fourth arrest. Felony charges could be leveled on the third arrest under certain circumstances, including two prior arrests within seven years, fleeing the scene, damage to property or people, the presence of children, or a blood alcohol level of 0.15 percent or higher.

Critics say the legislation is misguided.

“It's not going to decrease the amount of DUI cases or fatalities,” says Denver attorney Jay Tiftickjian. “What works are public campaigns and extra checkpoints. Knowing that if I drink and drive I’ll get caught – that works.”

Tiftickjian also advocates for increasing emphasis on prevention. ”If we’re going to spend all this money sentencing people to prison, incarcerating them, why not take the money and get them treatment so they don’t reoffend.”

“I think you have to do both,” counters Rep. McCann. “The goal is to reduce the number of people who drive while drinking. I do think we need to look at improving our treatment options. But the punishment and deterrent of a felony is important. The idea of going to prison really motivates people.”

The number of arrests in Colorado for driving under the influence (DUI) and driving while ability impaired (DWAI) has dropped substantially in recent years, from 34,172 in 2010 to 24,124 last year, according to statistics from The Colorado Judicial Branch.

Fran Lanzer of the Colorado office of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) calls the decline encouraging, but says the felony bill is still needed.

“There are still people who continue to reoffend,” he says. “And once you get to your third or fourth arrest, we need to have options We need to find ways to hold people accountable. We’re missing that.”